Be a Good Storyteller, Be a Better Copywriter

I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.

His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”

How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).

Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.

Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.

Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…

In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:

It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?

Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).

Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.

Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.

How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?

What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?

Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?

What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?

20 replies
  1. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    As a direct response copywriter, I use stories all the time in various projects.

    When the story you write resonates with the audience, they read and become engrossed in your marketing piece (yes, even the longer sales letters too). The results show it.

  2. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    I wrote about the importance of stories on my blog. The bottom line was stories help sell… especially on the longer pieces that Joseph mentioned. But just as important, stories help create a stronger connection between the company and the prospect.

    One key about storytelling, though, is telling a story prospects want to read. I’ve known some companies that got messed up on that point. Their focus was on themselves instead of their prospects.

    It’s just like a face-to-face situation where someone only wants to talk about himself. You get tired of hearing that really quick and start tuning out.

    Writers who are going to excel on storytelling need to be clear who they’re talking to. Ideally, the client has a customer/prospect profile that will help you get a great picture of who you’re talking to. That’s a big help in creating a compelling story.

  3. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    I write a lot of product descriptions for catalogues, and storytelling is SO important in that type of writing. It breathes life into that designer watch, that imported rug, or that kitchen gadget in just a few carefully chosen words. Some of my clients even allow me to use an omniscient third person voice to put the product into context tell a mini story that subtly sells rather than hitting them over the head with the sales pitch; for instance, “After returning from a marathon of meetings, lunches, and conference calls, she kicks off her boots, slips into a pair of softer-than-soft slippers, and pours a glass of vino. Bliss!”

    I liked your UPS example, Peter! It does a great job of showing benefits.

  4. Star
    Star says:

    This is why people read testimonials and PS’s first. They seem to be set apart as “Oh, OK, here is the REAL story.” On the nonfiction side of my business, I always add some personal type info…at one big managed care magazine, I started this…opening with a doctor getting his car, thinking this or that….At first the editor had a total hiss, but gradually, other writers for the rag started doing it too, only I noticed they really carried it to extremes…it became, “Dr. Jones woke up tired. He rubbed his eyes. He stumbled to the bathroom, fuzzily wondering what to do. Pharmacy costs were up at the HMO where he saw patients. His people could not afford it…”
    They had everything in there but his morning shave! So this can be overdone, I am saying, but yes, I do it.

  5. Mele
    Mele says:

    I chose script writing as a specialty because I love the challenge of telling a story while showcasing a product’s features and benefits. I am working on a series of videos cross promoting my sub-specialty (book trailer scripts) and authors and reading in general. I started with a central theme, and the stories came flying in. It’s quite exciting!

    But I think my most exciting experience in telling a story goes back to my high school journalism days. I turned a scary situation into a state championship journalism award. All by telling a story.

    Long story short, I “lost out” on entering the Features Writing section of the contest, which at the time was the most popular section. I was forced to enter Sports Writing and I just knew I was doomed (I knew NOTHING about sports).

    The subject of the article was a tennis player (don’t recall who she was). Our job was to interview her during a 20 minute Q & A. We then had an hour to write the article. I knew squat about writing a sports article. So I just told the story of a girl who wanted to learn to play tennis. Who actually went on to learn to play tennis. Who actually learned to play tennis REALLY well…and became a champion. It worked! I won first place. I remember a few guys coming up to me asking how a GIRL could have won the Sports Writing award.

    I believe that experience influenced my love of the biography.

  6. Roxane B. Salonen
    Roxane B. Salonen says:

    I love this post! As a children’s author and newspaper columnist, I know about stories, and have been feeling just slightly out of my comfort zone in taking steps toward commercial writing. Now that you’ve all laid it out as simply good story-telling, I think I’m getting it. Keeping things visually compelling, getting to the heart of the story through emotion, focusing on the right aspects of the story so as not to churn out drab copy that will not garner attention: THAT, I really think I can do. I had already been thinking of using the “tell me your story” line on my website (still under construction). Now I feel even more convicted about this approach. Appreciate the thoughts as always, Peter and group. 🙂

    Incidentally, I just launched my new writer’s blog, Peace Garden Writer. It’s still pretty bare bones, but if you have a chance, hope you’ll stop by sometime: (Peter, I hope it’s okay to mention it here. Hoping for tips from you veterans. I’ve been blogging for a while but this is my first writing-only blog).

  7. Louise
    Louise says:

    This is exactly the line of thinking I have been having lately. I , like some others, am moving from strictly article writing into the FLCW arena, and thinking about what my most transferable skills are. The articles I most love to do are profiles, so I am focusing on my talent of bringing in the personal touch to business stories. I think there is a huge untapped market there (or at least I am hoping so 😉

  8. Mike Sweeney
    Mike Sweeney says:

    Very good reminders Peter. Stories get repeated more than any other type of communication so why not capitalize on it? That’s why I’ve chosen to specialize in case studies in my B2B copywriting–it pairs nicely with my journalism degree. Interviewing skills and an ability to draw out hidden emotions & motivations helps tell things in a compelling way. Star, I really like your idea of re-capping the story in a postscript. If told concisely and compellingly, the reader can’t help but want to read the rest of your letter just to get details.

    And Susan I certainly don’t envy you trying to weave stories into product descriptions and catalog copy! That really takes some inspiration and creativity. I imagine it must be fun though… I’ve often stared at an Revolutionary War era $8 bill I have. It was printed in Massachusetts, 1776. It was also printed right around the time of the Boston Tea Party, and I’ve wondered, “Who’s held this? What amazing transactions has it been involved in? Was it part of a revolutionary ransom or conspiracy?” Man, what stories it could tell we only had some record.

  9. Betty
    Betty says:

    Excellent post! Thank you Peter, this is so helpful as I’m currently writing a case study. Good reminder that the same idea applies to other marketing collateral too. I would not have thought that stories could work with proposals. I will now look at everything I write from the story angle. Thanks!

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all… Great stories! 😉 Seriously, stories are obviously an integral part of the value proposition of many of you (and WILL be for many others…). Always good to hear from you, Joseph, and so right: stories engage, and you won’t move readers to the next step in the sales cycle unless they ARE engaged. Mike, thanks for the reminder on the importance of knowing who you’re talking to. If you can get a profile of the audience (and what moves them), you can much more effectively craft the language that’ll get through.

    Star, I liked your observation about P.S.’s and testimonials – exactly right – especially the testimonials; people know they’re going to get more of the straight scoop with those and so naturally gravitate to them. And Mele, great story about a great story! Good for you. Thanks Susan, for your real-world examples. Stories DO breathe life into things and make writing more compelling. Why? Because they insert a human being into the equation, and have them using the product/service, which always makes it easier to picture using it yourself.

    And Roxane, Louise, and Betty, glad it resonated. Yes, understanding the importance of storytelling to the commercial writing field can make the business a lot more approachable, and not seem to be such a foreign world. It’s all part of realizing that in our business, we’re still just people communicating with other people and trying to get through as effectively as possible.

    And Mike, you’re right – stories get repeated, and they get repeated because they’re easy to remember. I’m sure a psychologist/neurologist could give us the technical explanation for why stories stick with people when other words don’t. But it’s a logical sequence of events that’s easy to track with – like a song melody.


  11. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I have a Masters Degree in Playwriting, which I had figured would prepare me for an exciting career waiting tables, but I ended up parlaying it into writing TV/radio/multimedia scripts for businesses. After I hung out my shingle as a generalist, I was amazed to see how the nuts and bolts of storytelling apply to all forms of marketing copy. Playwrights and copywriters are both in the business of manipulating audiences’ emotions to create a predetermined response (laughing, cheering, calling for more information about Widget X…).

    Every business has a story to tell — and good storytellers will always find work.

  12. mary aalgaard
    mary aalgaard says:

    Thanks for this well-written advice and story on writing “The Story.” Roxane sent me over here. I use this format when I write. I know what draws me in and what I remember when the words are no longer in front of me. And, that’s what I’m interested in, other people’s stories.

    Just as I was about to sign out, I read the post above mine. I’m also a playwright. Neat connection. Perhaps, that’s what we do…set the stage, introduce the characters, and tell the story as visually and interesting as possible.

  13. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    I use storytelling in nearly every writing project.

    One of my niche areas is healthcare. As such, I have penned copy for newsletters, video scripts, brochures & more using storytelling. As you can imagine, there is plenty of drama these days to incorporate into healthcare writing!

    The cool thing is … effective storytelling works well in every industry—technology, animal agriculture even professional services.

    In 2008 I prepared a professional services proposal for a large, multi-year Department of Energy contract. Rather than taking the business as usual approach … we incorporated elements of storytelling throughout the massive document. Sure enough, the client won the work and billed over $1 million in projects the first year. This client was a happy client.

    I love it when I hear feedback like, “I never thought of it that way before.” Perhaps more importantly, I love it when I hear about a client’s success … and storytelling can play an important role.

    William is spot on— “Every business has a story to tell.” It is our job to find the drama and tell the story.

  14. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    I write magalogs, primarily in the alternative health and the preparedness/survival industries. And they are ALL about story. Great stories sell more product. The fun part about magalogs is that with sidebars, you can explore all the tangential stories as well. I like what Stephen says: “It’s our job to find the drama.” I agree. Do that, and you’ve got a winning piece, no matter what you’re writing: magalog, brochure, landing page, catalog description, whatever.

  15. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    I wrote a white paper for my website. It is called: “How a Marketing Plan Increases Your Profits: Making the Most of Limited Time and Budgets.” Throughout the white paper I weave the story of Mary the Marketing Manager for the Simple Phone Company. Because she has a marketing plan she is able to focus, plan and identify bottlnecks. She is able to explore cost efficient alternatives and project synergies. She also turns the perceived weaknesses of her “simple” phones into a strength by having a plan to market them to the older generation. All stories were inspired by my own experience in marketing……as well as my pleasure in having a Tracfone that can be easily used by the technology-impaired individual.

  16. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    Stories make great tv and radio commercials. Not the contrived slice-of-life scenarios where the characters have non-believable conversations about the virtues of some brand, but vignettes that people can relate to either because they’ve experienced something similar or the stories have sufficient verisimilitude. I find the On-Star radio spots particularly effective in this regard. I can’t tell if the audio snippets of distress calls are real, but they sound convincing and the happy endings make me believe the service works.

    As a primarily business-to-business copywriter, I use story telling most often either in sidebars in customers’ brochures or annual reports or in stand-alone case history or success story collateral pieces that relate how a real world customer solved a real world problem using my client’s product or service.

    The specific story-telling technique I prefer is to avoid a strict chronological presentation and start with the results — especially if they are dramatic. A college reduced student printing 41% in one semester. A financial institution avoided an IT system outage by seeing and correcting a problem more than an hour before it could affect service. A Romanian water utility losing 30% of daily production to leaks will cut losses by half in the first phase of a new leak detection program. I identify the solution (by my client’s name) early on and only then get into any chronological series of events. Sometimes there’s no strict chronology at all. But after all the information is presented, the reader understands the sequence of events.

    Even though a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, that’s not always the most effective way to tell it.

  17. Richard
    Richard says:

    Brief comment:
    The print edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is NOT a practical resource for a copywriter when there are subject-searchable online versions (and other collections of quotations) out there.
    Just my opinion.
    Has anyone found a quick and efficient way of using the print version? I find the keyword index
    just barely better than useless. As for the author index…..


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